Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Guest Post: Insights in the Writings of Archbishop Fulton Sheen

Now for the second edition of Luke's piece on Archbishop Fulton Sheen.  Don't forget to check out Luke's blog, Quiet, Dignity, and Grace.


Insights Gained
I am young in my knowledge of Fulton Sheen.  I have read 10 of his books and listened to hours of his audio catechism (the same one which John Paul II used to learn English).  It is not possible to succinctly state everything I have learned from this very amateur study.  However, I will try to explain what I consider to be the four most powerful things I have learned from this Servant of God.

Insight #1: The Importance of the Eucharist and the Holy Hour
Reading Sheen, one constantly runs across Eucharistic metaphors.  He frequently employs analogies of wheat being sifted, ground, chewed, etc. to our world today.  We in a sense are that grain and our lives, if we unite them to Christ's, will follow the pattern He set.  The world will chew us up; we will suffer.  On the other hand, Christ, by becoming the bread of life for us, enables us to receive the merits he won on the cross through the Eucharist.

So the suffering we encounter is a sign that we're living the way Jesus did.  The world reacts against us because it knows that if our love is real and our faith is true, it is doomed.  What could possibly keep a Christian on the path in the face of so much resistance?  Only the very gift of Christ, who both gives us the true bread from heaven and IS the true bread from heaven, containing in itself all delight.

Fulton Sheen makes the Eucharist the source and summit of his thought precisely because it was the center of his spiritual life.  This was one of two promises he made on his ordination to the priesthood: he would make a holy hour in the presence of the Eucharist every single day.  It is one he never failed to keep, no matter how busy he might have been or how ill his health may have been.  In the later part of his life, Sheen spent years doing retreats for priest.  He noted that he felt people needed some concrete advice after coming out of a retreat if it's going to make any real difference in their life.  His advice was always the same: make a Daily holy hour.  It was simple advice to give, but challenging advice to follow.  But precisely its simplicity is what also made it attainable.

This practical goal he set wasn't always practical for him.  He writes in his autobiography of having to do some extra convincing sometimes to get into churches for his Holy Hour.  When did he find time in his schedule?  In the morning.  Sometimes, Very early in the morning.  He writes in his autobiography of once having to climb out of a window because the church he was visiting had been locked up by an impatient pastor.

And don't forget: this wasn't a man with lots of free time on his hands.  He wrote and studied constantly.  His work as a professor at Catholic University kept him in the books and he even destroyed his course notes every year at the end of the year.  Any teachers out there know how much extra work that would entail.  Archbishop Sheen had early morning flights, plenty of train rides around the country and Europe doing extra catechetical and evangelical work for no extra money.  He was the head of the Propagation of the Faith apostolate in the United States, and the private theologian to a handful of celebrities.  How many times did he fail to keep his daily holy hour?  Zero.  This is his first recommendation in building a spiritual life and anyone who has ever tried this, even temporarily, knows how powerful it is.  Sheen was built up by this grace for decades!!

Insight #2: The Beauty of True Humility and Piety

Modern day readers who look back on Fulton Sheen's works may find his piety a bit pervasive.  We're not used to it these days.  We expect people to keep their religion to themselves and not to let it out of the box too often.  Certainly we don't expect religious fervor to permeate every conversation we have or sentence we write.  But, when you read Sheen, you read piety.

For instance, whenever the late archbishop wants to refer to Jesus, he has a handful of options available to him.  He could use the following: Jesus, Jesus Christ, Christ, the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Lord, the Messiah, etc.  There are countless ways to refer to the second person of the Trinity.  And if you were typing on a typewriter or heaven forbid using an actual pen and paper, some of them would save more space than others.  Sheen constantly used the title "Our Blessed Lord."  Now, this may seem like a small thing.  But when you read book after book and listen to talk after talk you start to see just how much extra time it would take to say "Our Blessed Lord" rather than Jesus.  Add to this that whenever Jesus was referred to as "he" or "him," those words are capitalized, you start to see how much reverence Sheen had for Our Blessed Lord.  Archbishop Sheen's respect for God's name was no doubt due in large part to his devotion to the Holy Hour.

Aside from his piety and the beautiful way in which he utilizes poetic imagery in his theology, Fulton Sheen also displayed a deep-rooted humility.  He famously said at a retreat given for inmates that there was only one thing which separated him from the men imprisoned: they got caught!  His autobiography is filled with deep looks into his own self and almost uncomfortable descriptions of his own failures.  He feared, at the end of his life, that he had been too flashy, accepted too many of the world's comforts, and had too much pride.  He also has a painful recollection of a moment in which he, ever so briefly, hesitated when greeting a leper.  He had meant to place a crucifix in the hand of an African leper when he hesitated and dropped it.  After that, he picked up the crucifix, and proceeded to kiss the hands of every single leper in the village as he greeted them.  That moment and the description of it shows how penetrating Sheen's self-knowledge was.

And what is the great mark of a saint?  Seeing himself in God's eyes.  Holding himself accountable the way God would.  Surely Fulton Sheen knew what great good he was called to.  The slightest imperfections were things he saw clearly about himself.  That humility is probably what further spurred his great piety and devotion.  You see, when we, like Sheen, realize how lowly we really are, suddenly genuflecting, praying before meals, using reverence when speaking the divine name, a morning offering, nightly examination of conscience, and all the other common practices of piety which Sheen constantly recommended become a natural reaction to the simple truth that we are not God.  The Archbishop knew this truth intimately.


Check in soon for the final installment.

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